A Teenage Old Soul

By Bill Rudman

Everybody who knows more than a dozen musicals knows that at 21 Barbra Streisand became a Broadway star as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. And nearly everybody knows that two years earlier, she stole the show in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, wildly swiveling in her office chair as the sexually frustrated Miss Marmelstein.

But ironically, it’s not on Broadway that we got the first glimpse of her singular vision as a singer. At 17 she began the first of several engagements at New York’s Bon Soir (in Greenwich Village, naturally). She instantly owned the place and observed years later, “Some singers, like Mabel Mercer, used to spend their whole lives singing in small clubs. I could understand why after playing the Bon Soir, where I spent some of the happiest nights of my working life.”

So here comes a new CD from Columbia Records (now Sony), the only label she has ever recorded for. “Barbra Streisand Live at the Bon Soir” shares performances from November 1962; it was her late-night gig after the curtain came down on Wholesale, and it was to have been released as her first album. Sony tells us that this is the debut of her Bon Soir recordings. They’re fibbing. Of the 24 cuts on the CD, eight first appeared in the 1991 compilation, “Barbra Streisand: Just for the Record.”

But I’m quibbling. To finally get the whole shebang in one package is a glorious gift. In 1962 she wasn’t happy with the sound (the Bon Soir was a tough room to mike), and it took 60 years until a digital remix from the master tapes made her happy.

The real point of this, however, is that the CD provides an expansive look at what was to come. She’s working with just four musicians, and there are times she pushes a bit too much—arrangers like Peter Matz and Ray Ellis arrived soon, and their orchestras were totally in sync with where she wanted to go.

But that’s more quibbling. What’s fascinating is that much of her repertoire at the Bon Soir later turned up on the early LPs, and when you add up all 24 tracks it’s quite a statement from a 19-year-old. Most of the songs—and she chose her own material from the get-go—were written by the old guard of our musical theater, including Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and no less than six songs are by the great Harold Arlen and his various lyricist-partners.

What did such a young woman find in the work of these masters, written in the 1930s, 40s and 50s? I’ll offer good taste and sophistication and let it go at that. In 1962 she was already surrounded by rock ‘n’ roll, but here are such sublime items as Arlen & Koehler’s “When the Sun Comes Out,” Rodgers & Hart’s “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street,” Arlen & Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” and Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry”—the latter two from musicals that flopped. Now we know all four, and Streisand is largely responsible for turning them into standards as she determinedly bucked the tide of American popular music.

So you need this CD in your collection—it’s a disc that has “old soul” written all over it. As her star was rising, the old guard was falling, desperately seeking a champion for their music and lyrics. Streisand was the last young singer to win acclaim honoring them, and oh, how grateful they were! On one of her early LPs, Richard Rodgers—a man not given to overstatement—summarized the feelings of his brethren when he used the entire back cover to write: “Nobody is talented enough to get laughs, to bring tears, to sing with the depth of a fine cello or the lift of a climbing bird. Nobody, that is, except Barbra. She makes our musical world a much happier place than it was before.”

It’s all there at the Bon Soir.